The Southeast Conference is one of 39 regional bodies of the United Church of Christ, a “mainline” denomination with over 5,000 churches and nearly one million members across the U.S. The United Church of Christ was founded in 1957 by a merger of the Congregational and Christian Churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Church (E&R). Congregationalists trace their roots back to 1620 with the Pilgrims of Plymouth and the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay, and the E&R is of liberal German parentage.
Beginning with the Pilgrims in 1620, refugees of the European Reformation became known in this country as Congregationalists and Presbyterians. They were champions of freedom, independent of spirit, and democratic in governance — all of which exercised tremendous influence on American history and the development of democratic institutions. The Mayflower Compact became a template of sorts for the U.S. Constitution, and Congregationalists founded Harvard and Yale and many of the finest institutions of higher education in America. Believing that an uneducated clergy person is as dangerous as a quack physician, Congregationalists insisted that the “parson” (the person) be the most educated member of the community. And they saw no conflict between intelligence and piety.
The Church of Firsts
The United Church of Christ has been the church of firsts, weaving God’s message of hope and extravagant welcome with action for justice and peace. Together, we live out our faith in ways that effect change in our communities. The UCC’s many “firsts” mean that we have inherited a tradition of acting upon the demands of our faith. When we read in Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”—a demand is made upon us.
As a church of “firsts” the UCC was:
- 1620: Pilgrims Seek Spiritual Freedom
Seeking spiritual freedom, forbears of the United Church of Christ prepare to leave Europe for the New World. Later generations know them as the Pilgrims. Their pastor, John Robinson, urges them as they depart to keep their minds and hearts open to new ways. God, he says, “has yet more light and truth to break forth out of his holy Word.”
- 1700: An early stand against slavery
Congregationalists are among the first Americans to take a stand against slavery. The Rev. Samuel Sewall writes the first anti-slavery pamphlet in America, “The Selling of Joseph.” Sewall lays the foundation for the abolitionist movement that comes more than a century later.
- 1785: First ordained African-American pastor
Lemuel Haynes is the first African-American ordained by a Protestant denomination. He becomes a world-renowned preacher and writer.
- 1853: First woman pastor
Antoinette Brown is the first woman since New Testament times ordained as a Christian minister, and perhaps the first woman in history elected to serve a Christian congregation as pastor. At her ordination a friend, Methodist minister Luther Lee, defends “a woman’s right to preach the Gospel.” He quotes the New Testament: “There is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
- 1897: Social Gospel movement denounces economic oppression
Congregationalist Washington Gladden is one of the first leaders of the Social Gospel movement, which takes literally the commandment of Jesus to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Social Gospel preachers denounce injustice and the exploitation of the poor. He writes a hymn that summarizes his creed: “Light up your Word: the fettered page from killing bondage free.”
- 1957: Spiritual and ethnic traditions unite
The United Church of Christ is born when the Evangelical and Reformed Church unites with the Congregational Christian Churches. The new community embraces a rich variety of spiritual traditions and embraces believers of African, Asian, Pacific, Latin American, Native American and European descent.
- 1972: Ordination of first openly gay minister
The UCC’s Golden Gate Association ordains the first openly gay person as a minister in a mainline Protestant denomination: the Rev. William R. Johnson. In the following three decades, General Synod urges equal rights for homosexual citizens and calls on congregations to welcome gay, lesbian and bisexual members.
- 1976: First African- American leader of an integrated denomination
General Synod elects the Rev. Joseph H. Evans president of the United Church of Christ. He becomes the first African American leader of a racially integrated mainline church in the United States.
- 1993: Apology accepted
Sometimes “being first” means being the first to admit a past mistake. In Hawai’i, UCC President Paul Sherry apologizes on behalf of the church for the complicity of missionaries in the 1893 overthrow of Hawai’i’s government and leader, Queen Lili’uokalani. $3.5 million is pledged to native Hawai’ian churches and a non-profit organization.
- 2005: Marriage equality
On July 4, the General Synod, meeting here in Atlanta, overwhelmingly passes a resolution supporting same-gender marriage equality. UCC General Minister and President John Thomas says that the Synod “has acted courageously to declare freedom, affirming marriage equality, affirming the civil rights of same gender couples … and encouraging our local churches to celebrate and bless those marriages.”
We were in the forefront of the anti-slavery movement and the Civil Rights movement. Our response to the demands of our faith is woven into the history of our country.
A Church of Extravagant Welcome
Today, we continue to change lives throughout the world. We work alongside more than 200 mission partners. We labor ceaselessly to fight injustice, in the United States and abroad. We instill our vision into our youth and young adults, forging leaders who will imagine new dreams. And we sustain and develop church leaders, pastors, and our local churches to live their faith in exciting new ways. We believe in a God that is still speaking, a God that is all-loving and inclusive. We are a church that welcomes and accepts everyone as they are, where your mind is nourished as much as your soul.
We are a church where Jesus the healer meets Jesus the revolutionary, and where together, we grow a just and peaceful world. Our Faith is 2,000 Years Old. Our Thinking is Not.